Incentivizing Biofuels Sustainability

Scientists weigh in on sustainable biofuels production including how to best manage cropping systems and establish an incentive program that awards environmentally responsible biofuels development.
By Jessica Ebert | January 12, 2009
A conference conceived by Dale Brockway of the USDA Forest Service and shepherded by the conference co-chairs William Parton, an ecologist at Colorado State University, and Richard Pouyat with the USDA Forest Service, took more than a year to plan. Parton and Pouyat are members of the Ecological Society of America, which organized the event and brought more than 300 people to the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. For one day, speakers representing various government agencies, ethanol producers and academic researchers, presented their views on the environmental benefitsand costsof biofuels production.

"From the beginning we wanted to promote a thoughtful discussion about the environmental implications of biofuels," explains Clifford Duke, the director of science programs for the ESA. "But when we started planning the conference we weren't sure if the issue would remain salient over the roughly year and a half we thought it would take to do the planning for the conference." Then, about two weeks before the conference, which was held on March 10, two papers were published in the journal Science that raised concerns about the carbon debt that could potentially be linked to biofuels production.

The ESA's Ecological Dimensions of Biofuels conference provided a timely forum for discussing the sustainability of biofuels production systems and the means by which biofuels industries, particularly the emerging cellulosic ethanol industry, can grow and prosper while promoting environmental stewardship. The one-day event was followed by a two-day workshop where 50 scientists, including ecologists, soil scientists, economists, water quality experts, botanists and microbiologists, were invited to discuss the issues that emerged from the conference. These workshop discussions culminated in a policy paper that was recently published in the journal Science.

In that paper, 23 of the workshop participants explained how the explosion of grain-based biofuels production systems and conventional management practices has caused environmental harm, including increased soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and the leaching of fertilizer nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from soil to ground and surface waters. These effects stem from policies that promote action before the consideration of consequences. The authors point out that the 2007 mandate for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022 and the subsidies for both refiners and growers as stipulated in the 2008 Farm Bill will encourage the same acceleration and adoption of production systems before the environmental impacts of these systems are properly vetted.

For example, "To get maximal yield, farmers may apply maximum amounts of fertilizer, which can exacerbate a nutrient-loss problem," says Andrew Sharpley, a water quality researcher at the University of Arkansas and a contributor to the Science paper. "The crop may not be grown on lands that are most suited to it. These policies may encourage a shift away from rotating crops to a monoculture," he says, and there is a potential for increased use of water. "All of this could impact the quality and quantity of water in the long run."

This, however, is not the way it needs to be, these scientists write. In the bulk of their paper, these experts in soil and water quality and agricultural systems and economics explain that these impacts can be reversed or at the very least lessened. They explain how the adoption of best management practices and the development of sustainable incentive programs can soften the environmental impacts of grain-based ethanol production and strengthen the potential positive attributes of cellulosic biofuels.

"Sustainable biofuel production systems could play a highly positive role in mitigating climate change, enhancing environmental quality and strengthening the global economy, but it will take sound, science-based policy and additional research effort to make this so," the researchers write. "Decision makers at all levels need to understand that applying best available practices to biofuel crop production will have positive impacts both on the sustainability of our working lands and on providing a long-term place for biofuels in our renewable energy portfolio, and that the policies necessary to ensure this outcome are not currently in place."

Incentives for Best Management
So what practices should be used and what policies are needed to ensure environmental sustainability in the face of accelerated biofuels production? At the farm level, the authors outline best-management practices that build healthy soils, promote water quality and increase biodiversity. The use of no-till farming, advanced fertilizer technologies and cover crops, for example, can slow erosion and capture nutrients thereby preventing runoff into nearby waterways or ground water. Creating patchworks of land characterized by mixtures of crops, grasses, shrubs and areas of unmanaged habitat can increase the presence of pollinators, beneficial insects and wildlife, Sharpley explains.

In addition, the improvement of crops through genetic manipulation or classical selection can increase the stress tolerance of these plants or reduce the need for pesticides. The biggest benefits, however, may come from the development of cellulosic feedstocks. Many of these will be perennial crops that, once established, require little if any chemical inputs or tillage. These feedstocks are also better suited to being raised among a mixture of species.

Although the environmental benefits of these best-management strategies are known, the adoption process is slow at best. "If we're going to expand agriculture for biofuels and use more agricultural lands, we need to do that in the right way and use the best-management practices we have," Parton says. "We need to find policies to do that." Therefore, at the government level, a program that rewards environmentally conscious growers and producers should be established, the authors write. An incentive program like this would award subsidies when certain performance standards were met. These standards would likely be regionally based and could include the use of best-management practices and measures of greenhouse gas emissions, water quality and soil erosion. This kind of incentive program could be modeled after the organic food certification program where canners or processors have to make sure that their suppliers have met certain standards and the products are truly organic.

"It means that you don't have policemen out there," explains Otto Doering, an agricultural economist at Purdue University. "It means that the processing plant that buys the materials has to make sure the grower of the cellulosic material is doing the right thing. You don't have big government regulation. It's built into the market system."

The U.S. EPA has the perfect opportunity to make something like this happen. Under the 2007 Energy Independence & Security Act, the EPA must certify that any ethanol production, beyond the 15 billion gallons that's already being produced or that will be produced at plants under construction, meets certain greenhouse gas emission requirements. "What we're saying is that we shouldn't just think of greenhouse gas standards, we should put it in a broader framework for good environmental stewardship," Doering says.

The first step toward such a framework was taken with the publication of the Science paper, which its authors intended to be a springboard for greater dialogue. The ESA is planning to follow this up with the publication of several science-based manuscripts from the conference speakers. These papers will be published in the society's peer-reviewed journal Ecological Applications. The ESA is also working with the Energy Foundation, a partnership of major donors that provides grants to institutions working to advance energy efficiency and renewable energy, to publish five reports on biofuels sustainability, which will be written for the public and will be produced as part of the ESA's "Issues in Ecology" series, according to Duke.

In addition, Parton is working through the ESA to organize an international conference on biofuels sustainability. "The Science paper reflects what the science community is concerned about and that we need to do something ahead of time," Parton explains. "It's an interesting and global science question. We know what we should be doing. We're just not doing it."

Jessica Ebert is a freelance writer for Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach her at